Painting a Portrait with the Zorn Palette
I gave a live portrait demonstration with the Zorn palette at the Blaauwberg Art Society in Cape Town. The model was my friend Rohan and the duration of the demo was about an hour and 20 minutes.
It was quite intense giving a demo lesson to a room full of artists. Especially since I was trying to create a near enough likeness of Rohan in a really short time. And talk about my process while painting.
And so, for my first ever live portrait demonstration, I learnt quite a lot. Trying to balance my focus, answering questions, and painting in front of an audience, helped my confidence immensely.
Why use the Zorn palette?
Anders Zorn was a very famous and successful Swedish painter during his own lifetime (1860 – 1920). He often utilized a limited colour palette in many of his portraits, nudes and sometimes landscapes.
I decided to do a portrait demonstration with the Zorn palette, because it is a very useful exercise. Especially for ‘beginner artists’.
I should rather say, that it is a wonderful exercise for any artist, because the simplified colour palette has many edifying benefits.
What are the benefits of the Zorn palette?
By limiting the colours to just four; namely Ivory Black, Titanium White (or Flake White), Cadmium Red (or Vermillion) and Yellow Ochre, it forces the artist to:
Concentrate more on tonal value, drawing and composition.
Achieve greater colour balance and harmony.
Think more in terms of warm or cool colours to achieve contrast.
Use higher chroma and muted (greyed) colours more effectively.
Become more adept at colour mixing, rather than using pure colour straight from the tube.
How to make a Zorn palette colour chart
Making a limited palette colour chart is a tedious but very useful exercise. You can learn a lot about colour mixing, and create your own colour notes.
Learning colour charts from books or online is usually a total waste of time. You have to do it yourself.
Here’s a Zorn palette colour chart that I made. It’s amazing the range of colours you can get from just four tubes of paint. It took me a long time to paint this board out, being careful not to contaminate my colours.
Start the Zorn palette colour chart with pure yellow ochre. Then, going from left to right, gradually add higher ratios of red until you have pure red. Then add more black until you have pure black. Then more yellow etc.
Going down, increase the ratios of white until you have a tint of 5%. Then, in the lower half of the chart, add a trace of the colour that was not included in the top section, by using the same system.
How to draw a charcoal portrait from life
For this demonstration, I decided to paint Rohan’s side profile.
To draw a charcoal portrait from life, start with a basic construction drawing of the head with vine charcoal.
The Andrew Loomis Method simplifies the head into basic shapes.
It may start off looking a little robotic, but it’s important to get the basic planes right.
Drawing or painting from life is crucial. It trains the eye to see in a three dimensional way, rather than relying on the flatness of a photograph.
A good tip, is to periodically close your eyes slightly while working, so that you can simplify the values and basic shapes.
It’s important not to rush the drawing stage, as getting the basic proportions correct in the drawing, can save a lot of time in the painting stage later.
The drawing in charcoal took me about 15 minutes, and all the while I talked about my process.
Drawing is really important. I like to think of drawing as really just an extension of painting. I also think of my brush strokes as likened to the cross-hatching of a drawing.
Therefore, I consider the length and direction of each brush stroke.
Once I was pleased with the charcoal sketch, I asked Rohan to spray it with fixative outside, while I answered questions and cracked some dumb jokes.
Tips for painting a portrait with the Zorn palette
Usually, I tone my canvases or boards, or use an imprimatura (a transparent stain of earthy colour) before the painting begins.
The Zorn palette benefits more from painting directly onto a white ground. The white ground gives the colours of the Zorn palette a bit more vibrancy, as it’s easy to create quite dull, muddy colours with this palette.
To paint a portrait with the Zorn palette, squeeze out ivory black, titanium white, cadmium red and yellow ochre onto your wooden palette.
It’s a good idea to make a tonal value scale at the top of your palette with varying degrees of black and white. Start with pure white, and create several steps of increasingly darker grey, until you end the value scale with pure black.
Create some ready-to-go warm and cool colour mixes on your palette for the skin tones.
Mix some black with the cadmium red and a little yellow ochre to create a warm brown.
With this brown, and a fairly large filbert brush, block-in the basic shadow shapes of the head in a broad, general fashion.
You can also mix a medium of stand oil and genuine turps to improve the flow of the paint.
Paint the warm mid-tones with an orange mix of red and yellow, and cool down the mixes by adding more white.
Mix white with a little red and a touch of black to make a lovely violet colour.
For the cooler areas of the face, such as beneath the brow and the eye sockets, mix an olive green with black and yellow ochre.
Ivory black is quite a cool, bluish black, and when mixed with white, acts as a ‘blue’.
Mix a warm creamy colour with white and a little yellow ochre for the lighter areas.
Generally the thinner-skinned, bonier parts of the head are cooler, with more of a blue/green grey mix.
The fleshier parts, are generally warmer in colour with more reds/yellows.
Use a small round brush for the finer details. Try to make sure your brushstrokes always follow the direction of the forms.
I think I only used three brushes for this whole demo, as I knew I’d have to clean them later!
Conclusion on using the Zorn palette
The Zorn palette was quite tricky for me at first, as I’m generally not a direct painter, and I prefer painting in layers. It was easy in the beginning to make a dull mess of my paintings.
But through practice, I began to get a feel for it. I fell in love with the subtlety of the tone and the balance of the colour harmony. It became really easy.
It was important to get my colour mixes ready-to-go on my palette before painting, so that I could plan ahead.
And once I had a colour down on the canvas, to refrain from blending the hell out it. Some beautiful colours can be achieved if you resist the urge to blend them all to grey.
So that’s where drawing and confident brush strokes are key.
And understanding the form.
I feel like I still have a long way to go, but using a limited palette has been a very satisfying experience.
Of course, I didn’t quite finish Rohan’s portrait in the allocated time, so I took it home and completed it.
The audience seemed fairly impressed though, and I received an overwhelming amount of praise. I left the hall feeling proud and smiling broadly, my first teaching demo done and dusted.
Thanks to my wife Janine for carrying all my gear and letting me talk her ear off on the way home.
If you want a whole lot more info on painting the portrait with a limited colour or Zorn palette, check out Alla Prima Portrait Study in Oils. Here I talk about sketching in oils, some alla prima painting tips, and include a portrait painting video.
Thanks for reading and please send my any questions or suggestions in the comments below. Let me know if you’ve tried the Zorn palette, and what you think of it.
Check out some of my figure drawings here.